A new colleague recently asked me: ‘How do you get by?’ And he didn’t mean spiritually, socially or physically - he asked how’s the money, although I’ll be the first to confess that all four interconnect in my world. Money don’t make you happy, but it sure as hell smoothes the waters when you’re able to pay your bills, bar tabs and adult stuff like taxes (yikes!) and internet, TV, gas and rent (ouch).
I went to a very prestigious film-school, and some of my class-mates have since created - and/or worked on - TV shows like “The Killing”, “The Bridge”, “Borgen”, “House of Cards” and “Wayward Pines”. Just to mention a few. They’ve had tremendous professional success and bless ’em. Me, not so much.
A friend of mine went to The Royal Danish Art Academy with Bjarke Ingels, a disgustingly young and sickeningly successful young Danish architect, who now has offices in NYC and Copenhagen and roams the world doing huge projects. My friend designs ecological garden sheds for bored housewives in the suburbs of Copenhagen. I sympathise.
As Shane MacGowan sang: “We watched our friends grow up together. And we saw them as they fell. Some of them fell into heaven, some of them fell into hell.”
Well, some of us ended up in between, and scrape by. Just.
Why is this?
Of course, the natural pecking order of life being what it is, some stuff will float to the surface, and other sink. What I would argue is that successful people don’t just merely pull the red tab and inflate their life-jackets to float upwards towards money, recognition and success. To the contrary, most of them had no life-jacket, held their breath and swam like crazy for years and years.
Many of them still didn’t make it. But they had this one thing: a clear goal and enormous drive.
Another friend of mine (since some 15 years) is now one of the hottest crime-writers in Denmark, with novels being translated into a handful of languages already and his franchise growing steadily. I shall not name him here, because when we met he was an overweight wannabe writer who wanted to hang out with us hipsters who were just fresh out of film-school.
He basically sat home and ate pizza and dreamt. What he subsequently did was something as unoriginal as buying one of the most (in)famous self-improvement books ever: “The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People”. The difference was that he actually made it his bible. In ten years, from scratch (junk food and navel gazing), he went from an overweight schlob nobody to a very fit man of 35 and had two crime novels picked up in Denmark, the second one being the start of the franchise he is now embarking on. Oh, plus a wife and a penthouse apartment and writing loft in the centre of Copenhagen. Now he’s the one being interviewed by the BBC and me sitting with the stale slice of pizza.
I’m a slow learner, god knows, but at age soon 45 I’ve finally realized that the old saying “Success is 90% discipline and 10% talent” is true. I’m not even going to say “10% genius”, because you don’t need genius, talent will do nicely, thank you very much. In fact, most of us have it, in one form or the other. The trick is the 90% part. Discipline and focus that will hold hours, days, weeks, months, years without anyone even deigning to read a line you’ve written, let alone give you a thumbs-up.
I don’t think there’s any kind of statistics on the above theory, but I’m willing to bet my left nut that a fair proportion of the writers that succeed have an enormous amount of determination and grit - and won’t give up until they’ve reached their goal.
I once heard of a Swedish professor of physics based in Stockholm, Sweden. He had the most successful and awarded students of all the teachers of his generation. My father once met him and asked: “How can you produce so many very diligent and successful researchers, over so many years?” The professor answered: “It’s easy: when they are to graduate to PHD level I give them a theoretical problem that is unsolvable. Those who give up leave. Those who still keep at it after a year, I accept as my graduate students.” Sheer bloody-mindedness pays off, evidently.
There are, of course, two easy-to-spot dichotomies here: those who write and write with blind focus and great zeal and never make it (quite a number of them) and those dreamers and talkers and bullshit artists that actually manage somehow to produce one single novel, screenplay or collection of poems - and has great success with it: the one hit wonders.
In the end though, if I were a betting man, I’d put that nut on the writer with a focused goal, a daily routine - a novelist, screenplay writer or poet who daily produces text, and constantly works on improving his or her style and voice.
So, how do I get by? As mentioned above: just. What pays my rent at the moment is working as a story-consultant for a global computer-game franchise, plus translating season III of The Bridge (and no, I’m not at liberty to say a peep more than that, as I’ve signed Non-Disclosure Agreements with both production companies).
In addition, I’m developing not one, or two, but three feature films. One set on an island harbouring a dark secret; one that takes place in a small village in Denmark that big city evil visits; and one that centres on a 40-something careerist feminist woman, loosely based on a director friend of mine.
This might look like a foolish act of multi-task juggling, but in fact it’s a necessity for many screenwriters: until one of the projects get a green-light (funding, meaning money for me) I have to keep all three gestating. Once one of them (or god forbid, two) gets some kind of funding, the other projects are more or less put on hold. Follow the money, that’s the tune, as always.
If you’re not passing out on champagne in Cannes, but not driving a bus either - at least not just yet: if you’re a jobbing screenwriter in for the long haul there’s ups and downs, just like with everything else in life.
The fun is the ever not knowing what will happen next day, week, month: if your proposal will get a yes or a no, if your agent will call on a dreary Monday morning you didn’t very much like and turn it into an exciting prospect of future collaboration with persons as of yet unknown. (Note to self: call agent.)
The shit is of course the above, inverted. Never knowing how to get enough dosh for next month’s rent. That Monday morning (or Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday) call that doesn’t come. Sitting alone and feeling really uninspired and, well, out of steam, as it were. When you get well and truly tired of the pasta and ketchup routine, the growing hill of bills, when jealousy mounts about your friends’ secure 9-5 lives, monthly pay-checks and pension fund investments.
But if you really want to do this, if you’ve consciously chosen to go and go and go for it, no matter what, no matter no kids, no girlfriend - no money - it’s still the best thing in the world.
Because you’ve literally got your back to the wall, and, hopefully, that will produce some pretty good stuff, in the end.
So I do get by. But I would like to get better, at getting by.